Highlights of the Sonoma County Wine Auction

Here’s a recap of the best backstory, best party and most sentimental lot.|

The spiraling bids at last month’s Sonoma County Wine Auction raised upward of $1.8 million for local causes, from health and education to emergency relief for wildfires, floods and the pandemic. To capture the color of the auction, here’s our list of highlights — the memorable moments, best backstory, best party and most sentimental lot. For those who went to the auction and for the curious who didn’t, here are some snapshots.

Best backstory: This year’s live auction took place at Healdsburg’s Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards & Winery, in the covered arena of the former equestrian center. You might be wondering, how did this arena come to be part of the winery’s posh setting?

The late Fred Furth, who founded Chalk Hill 50 years ago, created the equestrian center in the 1990s for his then-wife, Peggy Furth. She loved dressage and the equestrian arts. Fred was gifted his materials as thanks for helping the state of Alaska litigate the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The oil tanker, you’ll recall, ran aground in Prince William Sound in 1989 and spilled its cargo of crude into the sea. Alaska gave Fred the Alaskan cedar he used to build the arena.

In the 1990s, the arena’s large, long roof beams were taken by barge from Alaska down to San Francisco, loaded on trucks and transported to the Healdsburg property. They were so large parts of Highway 101 needed to be shut down while they were transported. Once they made it to Chalk Hill, the beams were helicoptered up to the arena because of their size.

Bill Foley of Santa Rosa-based Foley Family Wines bought the winery in 2010. Now the arena is used for private, family and special events like the live auction. As this year’s chairman, Foley welcomed guests to sip and bid in the storied arena.

Best Party Ever: To welcome guests the night before the live auction, Jean-Charles Boisset of the Boisset Collection, a portfolio of 20-plus wineries primarily in France and California, hosted a Roaring ’20s costume party at his Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma.

About an hour into the festivities, Boisset was on a balcony above the courtyard and surprised the crowd below by spraying them with a bottle of sparkling wine. A piano player belted out tunes from the 1920s, while guests nibbled caviar, bits of wagyu beef and later, for dessert, pastel French macaroons.

Liz Thach, a Master of Wine and a Sonoma State University professor, wore a black-and-gold flapper dress, long black gloves and pearls. She said some people wore vintage clothing inherited from great-grandparents, and those who came to the party sans costumes were offered black feathered headbands or black felt hats.

“There was a festive feeling in the air,” Thach said, “and everyone enjoyed complimenting each other on their 1920s attire.”

Best notables: The auction showcases the county’s winemakers and chefs and pays tribute to the best and brightest of them. This year the vintner honoree was Boisset, whose Sonoma County portfolio includes DeLoach Vineyards and Healdsburg’s Oakville Grocery.

“As a Burgundian from a tiny village, I discovered this amazing place when I was 11 years old, and I knew I wanted to be in this place of possibilities,” Boisset said at the live auction. “We’re honored to support the Sonoma County Wine Auction for another year of essential fundraising.”

The chef honoree of the auction was Dustin Valette, owner of Valette restaurant and co-owner of the Matheson, both in Healdsburg.

“I’m born and raised in Sonoma County, and I’m honored to be involved in this community-focused event,” Valette told the crowd at the live auction. “We’re very fortunate to have all these amazing people to showcase the best of their brands — food, wine and hospitality.”

Most sentimental lot: The top group lot of the day, raising more than $595,000, was for Fund-A-Need, which targets different local needs from year to year and this year was dedicated to children’s education and literacy programs.

Susan Gilmore, CEO of North Bay Children’s Center, received $10,000 from the Fund-A-Need lot last year, which she used to support her program for preschoolers.

As part of her Raising A Reader program, Gilmore, a former teacher, encourages parental involvement. She sends students home with a book bag each week so parents will help them develop an appreciation for books and storytelling.

“When English is not their first language,” Gilmore said, “it’s so important for children to have the access to those high-quality, early learning opportunities so they can build the foundation for lifelong success.”

You can reach Wine Writer Peg Melnik at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

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